San Quentin State Prison, California’s oldest correctional institution, sits on a 432-acre compound overlooking the beautiful San Francisco Bay. Inside, in grim juxtaposition to the prison’s waterfront view, 701 men currently sit in the antiquated concrete cells that make up the largest death row in the Western hemisphere. In addition, the prison’s four cellblocks also hold minimum-, medium- and maximum-security inmates, supervised by a prison staff of more than a thousand.
Yet the real power structure inside the prison has less to do with guards, or even the threat of death row, than with their fellow prisoners. From 2001 to 2012, 162 Californian prisoners were killed at the hands of other inmates, many in murders orchestrated by prison gangs.
Tales of gang-driven murder can be grisly. In 2009, Edward Schaefer was convicted of second-degree murder and vehicular manslaughter of a 9-year-old girl. Schaefer, who had a dozen prior convictions, hit the young girl with his motorcycle as she crossed the street. His blood alcohol level was more than twice the legal limit. Schaefer was sentenced to prison for 24 years to life, but his sentence was short-lived. After only 10 days at San Quentin, Schaefer walked into the prison yard and was stabbed seven times in the neck and chest by an affiliate of the Aryan Brotherhood prison gang. His attacker, fellow inmate Frank Souza, had manufactured a 7-inch “bone crusher” from a piece of a metal bunk bed. When authorities asked him why he killed Schaefer, Souza responded, “All I got to say, 9-year-old girl."
Prison life in America brings to mind a violent, chaotic and often cruel environment. But Schaefer’s murder, like many inside prison walls, was not motivated by personal, racial or religious reasons. Instead, his murder represented a calculated move by the Aryan Brotherhood prison gang—in this case, a way for the gang to signal that there are acceptable crimes, and unacceptable ones, and they’re willing to punish perpetrators of the latter.
Today, America is experiencing significant momentum on criminal-justice reform for the first time in a generation. Appalled by the statistics that show America imprisons far more of its population than any other developed nation, odd political couples like George Soros and Charles Koch are building coalitions to reform a prison system that is overused and disproportionately affects minorities. Senators Rand Paul (R-Ky.) and Cory Booker (D-N.J.) are both publicly on the offensive with criminal justice reform, and it makes sense. California, an early adopter of three-strikes laws, recently passed Proposition 47, which reduced the penalty for most nonviolent drug and minor theft offenses from felonies to misdemeanors.
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